John McGann has long been interested in the notion that people have a relatively poor sense of smell, The Rutgers University Neuroscientist and olfaction researcher has long tested this notion and in his lab, humans often surprisingly perform as well as rodents and dogs.
Research done by McGann’s colleagues have indicated that humans can, in fact, smell out a trillion different odours. In a May review in Science, McGann reported that he has found the source of the foul-smelling rumour.
It turns out Paul Broca, a leading 19th-century anatomist was the originator of the idea. After observing the brain’s olfactory bulb – the area in our brains where we detect smells – is proportionally smaller than with other mammals, he equated the size with function.
“He accepted the near-universal believe in human exceptionalism and looking in the brain for evidence of it.”
– John McGann in Paul Broca
For Broca, a weak sense of smell elevated humans above the baser instincts of animals. Those believe became adopted by others until they became a commonplace notion.
What Broca apparently missed though, is that relative bulb size doesn’t matter. Bigger animals have bigger noses, but that doesn’t mean they can smell better or need bigger olfactory systems. When it comes to a sense of smell, it turns out we are just like animals. Knowing that could help scientists understand human behaviour, emotions, and more.
There’s more stories from 2017. Check out the Best of 2017 series here